Sex, Lies and Brainstorming – Dan Dennett’s Intuition Pumps

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Yesterday evening, the Brand Genetics team went to listen to the world’s eminent cognitive philosopher Prof Dan Dennett speak in London on “Intuition Pumps” – intuitive tools to help you think better. As you’d expect from the guy who cracked what human consciousness is – and how it works, it was a smorgasbord of insight.  But one insight grabbed our attention – about smart creativity as a social process…

Current received wisdom is that group creativity – aka brainstorming – is not smart; it sucks. Creativity by committee is an oxymoron.  Far better to create a chain of individual creativity – think serial monogamy or Taylorism for ideas – than an ideational group bunfight.

Ah, but, says Dennett (building on insights from cognitive psychologist Dan Sperber), humans have a natural knack for identifying holes other peoples ideas – but are lousy at seeing problems with their own ideas.

The reason for this is simple, it made sense for our brain to evolve that way. When someone speaks to another – it is usually to influence them in some way – often to their own advantage.  So lying, deceit and manipulation can make sense.  Therefore, any cognitive mutation that allowed you to detect flaws in what the other says – that you are being duped –  would get ‘selected’ as a trait and passed down to future generations because it confers an advantage over your duped peers.  (It also strikes me that sexual selection – mate choice, based on the ability to not be duped – would accelerate the evolutionary acquisition of this skill).

The practical upshot of this is that we evolved to identify flaws in each others ideas, rather than our own.  It follows then that good ideas will come out of an adversarial and competitive battle of ideas (survival of the fittest), and ideas will get better when and because they are beaten up by others. Think Dragons Den (Shark Tank), and the Voice.

This insight is not only only a natural rationale for our justice and parliamentary adversarial system (no magical Marxist – thesis-antithesis-synthesis processes needed), but also for social creativity in business.

Creativity together – social creativity – can work because we are better at spotting the flaws in other peoples ideas than our own.  But, and it is a big but, for social creativity to work we must jettison the fluffy idea that “there are no bad ideas” in brainstorming – and celebrate the idea that the main reason for your participation is to knock down bad ideas.  It’s what you – we – are all good at.


Paul Marsden

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1 comment
  • Lindsay Ratcliffe

    Gotta say I disagree with the main point of the summary paragraph. If you create an environment where you are there to “knock down bad ideas” then not only will ego prevail and no-one will want to contribute but you will also miss some fabulous opportunities to innovate through ‘continuous evolution’. Instead of throwing out the so-called ‘bad idea’, it is far better to understand the weakness in the idea and see if it can be improved up. In other words rather than dismissing ideas, build on ideas. It not only encourages a safe environment for participants (proven) but it also generates some great results (proven).

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